The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)

By Jeremy Pressman

An Israeli military move that was supposed to advance Israeli policy has turned into much more than just a ship-boarding fiasco. The botched boarding may well serve as a major setback to Israel and fuel international demands for bringing Hamas out of isolation and into a broader political dialogue. What exactly happened aboard the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara will become clearer, we hope, over the next few days. Not surprisingly, the Israeli story and the narrative of those on the ship already differ sharply. But solely focusing on the details of the incident risks missing the larger context. When Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel, with the support of key players such as Egypt and the United States, imposed a blockade on Gaza. Israel hoped isolation would either force Hamas to submit to Israeli dictates or turn Gaza's Palestinian population against Hamas. When Hamas did not submit, arguing it would not be starved into capitulation, and missiles launched from Gaza hit Israel, Israel eventually attacked the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Israel's military operation killed over 1,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and destroyed or damaged many buildings. Still, Hamas remained in power. Internationally, the result of Israel's attack was a broad and sustained campaign to discredit Israeli policy, if not delegitimise Israel itself. Even prior to the 2008-09 war, Israel's opponents were advocating boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. The Palestinian civilian suffering during the war expanded the circle of those in the international arena questioning Israel. Israel was on the defensive and Israeli leaders knew it, desperately trying to spin the war in a positive light. For example, the Israeli-Turkish relationship, which had been one of Israel's best with a Muslim-majority country, continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders, in both Fatah and Hamas, realised that this international campaign challenging Israel's legitimacy might help them advance the Palestinian cause without them having to do much work. Among some Israeli strategic thinkers, the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza was a major part of an Israeli effort to restore its image of strength. Israel had looked weak, they thought, by negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and then, when that failed in 2000-01, unilaterally pulling out of southern Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005). The predictable result, as they saw it, was a growing Arab perception, typified by statements from Hamas and Hezbollah, that Israel was weak and could be pushed around. Their corrective, then, was the Israeli use of coercion and force. When Hezbollah crossed the Israeli border in July 2006 in an effort to capture Israeli soldiers, the result was a month-long war. The battle with Hamas followed in December 2008 into January 2009. The current Netanyahu government, which only came into power in 2009 after the Gaza fighting had ended, is equally enamored with force and deterrence. Earlier this year, Israeli agents likely assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas official, in Dubai. The agents relied on forged passports, including Australian ones. The Israeli government again turned to a forceful option as the Gaza flotilla came closer to its destination. Israeli officials probably feared that letting these ships land in Gaza would reinforce the very perception of Israeli weakness that Israeli strategists have sought to reverse. Perhaps efforts to disable the ships before they departed, as Israel had done in 1988 to a PLO ship, failed or were not even attempted. The result was grainy footage of hand-to-hand combat and multiple casualties. The reaction around the globe from both governments and non-governmental organisations has been strongly critical of Israel. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, called Israel's actions "state terror". Amnesty International lamented the excessive use of force. David Miliband, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, condemned the "killing of innocent civilians". Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, called for Fatah-Hamas unity. The Obama administration held back a bit, emphasising "the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances". But it too "expressed deep regret at the loss of life". The immediacy of the critical response to the Israeli boarding is yet further evidence of the global communications environment in which we live. The IDF quickly had video footage up on the web depicting its version of the attack but so did those on the ship. Twitter was alive with tweets. Countries must now not only pull off an actual military operation smoothly but also win the post-event public relations battle. Israel looks to be in trouble on both counts in this case. That the flotilla was even organised gets back to the Israeli-led isolation of Hamas and the resultant shortage of supplies. It is Israel's problem, but as the International Crisis Group noted in reaction to the boarding, the issue goes far beyond just Israel: "For years, many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas. This policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating". The coming days likely will be full of both detailed revelations and further recriminations. Much to the Israeli government's dismay, the boarding may very well produce exactly what the organisers desired: not only bad press for Israel but also significantly more pressure to open the Gaza crossings. Jeremy Pressman is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is writing a book on force and diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict.